Having seen a gap that needed filling in the television landscape of the late 1960s, writer-producer John Aylesworth created a variety program targeted towards lovers of country music and culture, "Hee Haw" (CBS/syndicated, 1969-1992), one of the longest-running and best-loved music and comedy shows of all time. Its cornpone humor and wealth of country talent was a bit of an irony, since Aylesworth and his writing partner, Frank Peppiat, were both Canadians and had never even visited the American South. Nevertheless, the pair struck a chord with rural audiences, who helped make their show a cultural icon. A Peabody Award winner among many other accolades, including for his work on shows like "The Sonny and Cher Show" (CBS, 1976-77) and "Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music," (CBS, 1965), Aylesworth was a prolific and savvy figure in television history, whose best work kept millions tuning in every week.
Born Aug. 18, 1928 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, John Bansley Aylesworth began performing on the radio as a child. He left high school shortly before graduation to work as an actor and voice-over artist, and later moved into advertising, where he met future writing partner Frank Peppiat at an agency in Toronto. The duo's reputation for making their coworkers laugh landed them a job writing for CBC Television, beginning with the network's first production, "The Big Revue" (CBC, 1952-53) and later the variety program "After Hours" (CBC, 1953). Aylesworth's most enduring Canadian effort was "Front Page Challenge" (CBC, 1957-1995), a quiz show based on current events that ran for four decades. Among its on-camera guests were such world figures as Indira Gandhi, Malcolm X and writer Upton Sinclair.
In 1958, Aylesworth and Peppiat relocated to the United States, where they soon became in-demand writers for variety series like "Your Hit Parade" (NBC/CBS, 1950-59) and "The Andy Williams Show" (CBS, 1959). Work on the Emmy-nominated variety program "The Judy Garland Show" (CBS, 1962) with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin ingratiated him to other pop performers like Perry Como, who tapped him to pen material for "Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall" (CBS/NBC, 1948-1963), as well as Sinatra himself. Aylesworth received a Peabody award for the famed crooner's landmark 1965 special, "Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music." He later expanded into producing, most notably on "The Jonathan Winters Show" (CBS, 1967-69), for which he also served as the announcer.
While working with Peppiat on "The Jimmy Dean Show" (CBS, 1963-66), Aylesworth began to take note of several facts that would lead to the creation of "Hee Haw." The first was inspired by the "Dean Show" - while Jimmy Dean was a popular country performer, the actual series featured little-to-no country music. Later, while working on the Winters series, he watched a skit between the master comedian and Cliff Arquette in his rural character of "Charley Weaver," and saw how favorably the audience responded. Both began to wonder why a series built around country music had not yet been produced, despite an obvious built-in audience. After seeing that the top of the Nielsen charts was dominated by country-themed series like "The Andy Griffith Show" (CBS, 1960-68), "The Beverly Hillbillies (CBS, 1962-1971) and "Green Acres" (CBS, 1965-1971), the pair conceived of a variety show that would present comedy like another popular program of the time, "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" (CBS, 1968-1973), but with a bent toward rural humor and guests. Produced in conjunction with talent manager Bernie Brillstein, who conceived of the show's title based on the bray of a donkey, the result was "Hee Haw," which debuted in the summer of 1969 as a replacement for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1967-69).
Taped in Nashville, TN, "Hee Haw" was aimed directly at rural audiences. The humor was broad and largely apolitical, while the music was unquestionably country, gospel and bluegrass, drawing heavily from Nashville's rich talent pool. The show was hosted by Roy Clark, an ace guitarist and banjo player, and Buck Owens, the talented architect of the "Bakersfield Sound," which favored electric guitars and driving rhythms. Cast members included such country legends as Roy Acuff, banjo players Grandpa Jones and David "Stringbean" Akeman, and Owens' crack backup band, the Buckaroos, as well as rural comedians like Minnie Pearl, Slim Pickens, Junior Samples, George "Goober" Lindsay and Lulu Roman. In between comedy skits like the cornfield, where cast members swapped gags on a set designed like a farm pasture, top country artists performed their latest hits. Over the years, heavy-hitters like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Kenny Rogers, Jerry Reed, Garth Brooks, and Hank Williams Jr. performed on the show. By 1971, "Hee Haw" was a network hit, though many were surprised that - besides the target audience in the South and Midwest - the show pulled big ratings in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, proving that good songs and silly jokes were not exclusive to rural audiences.
Despite its solid ratings, "Hee Haw" fell victim to the "Rural Purge" of 1971, in which the major networks killed off their country-themed series and variety shows in favor of pursuing a younger demographic. But Aylesworth and his producing partners drew up a deal to broadcast the show in syndication, which prolonged the show's life for an astonishing 22 years, making it the fifth longest-running off-network program in television history and the longest country-themed series ever created. For Aylesworth and Peppiat, the show was a gold mine. Since "Hee Haw" taped its sketches in large blocks of time - sometimes an entire year's worth of gags over the course of two weeks - the pair was free to work on other programs, including "The Sonny and Cher Show" and "The Julie Andrews Hour" (ABC, 1972-73), both of which earned him Emmy nominations for writing. In 1982, they sold "Hee Haw" for $15 million and began work on a musical about the life of Jimmy Durante that went unproduced.
Despite the success of "Hee Haw" and the wealth of credits to his name, Aylesworth struggled to find work in the 1980s and beyond. After contributing to Dolly Parton's short-lived, eponymous variety show (ABC, 1987), he found himself unable to secure a job as a writer in Hollywood. He eventually filed class action lawsuits against several major networks, citing age discrimination, while eventually giving up looking for work altogether. In later years, Aylesworth settled in Palm Springs, CA, where he wrote The Corn Is Green: The Inside Story of 'Hee Haw', which was released in 2010. He died that same year on July 28 from pneumonia brought on as a result of pulmonary fibrosis. He was 81.
Writer (Feature Film)
Special Thanks (Special)
Dropped out of high school and worked as a copywriter and staff announcer at MacLaren Advertising in Toronto; met future production and writing partner Frank Peppiatt at MacLaren Advertising
Made TV series debut, co-writing with Peppiatt for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation series "The Big Revue"
Made TV acting debut on the CBS program "After Hours," which he co-wrote with Peppiatt
Relocated to the United States with Peppiatt
Made U.S. television debut, co-writing with Peppiatt on "The Andy Williams Show" (CBS)
Shared co-writing credit with Peppiatt on the CBS special "The Judy Garland Show"
Co-wrote the CBS special "Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music"
With Peppiatt, co-created and co-wrote the long-running country music and comedy series "Hee Haw" (CBS/Syndicated), also served as the show's announcer from 1969-1970
Wrote for the ABC variety show "The Julie Andrews Hour"; shared an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Variety or Music (1972)
Produced and wrote for the CBS variety series "The Sonny and Cher Show"; shared an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy-Variety or Music Series (1976)
Produced and shared co-writing credit for NBC's "The Grady Nutt Show"
Co-wrote Dolly Parton's short-lived variety series "Dolly" (ABC)
Appeared with Peppiatt in the CBC special "Adrienne Clarkson Presents: A Tribute to Peppiatt & Aylesworth: Canada's First Television Comedy Team"
Released his book The Corn Was Green: The Inside Story of Hee Haw